First woman to win ‘Nobel Prize’ of math dies at 40

28th Jul 2017

Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to receive the prestigious Fields Medal for math, has died in the US. The 40-year-old Iranian, a professor at Stanford University, had breast cancer which had spread to her bones.

She was awarded the award often described as mathematics’ Nobel prize in 2014, the committee cited her work in “the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces”. The Fields Medal is only awarded every four years to between two and four mathematicians under 40.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said her death caused “great sorrow,” state media reported. Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said her death was a cause for grief for all Iranians.

US-Iranian scientist Firouz Naderi paid tribute to Mirzakhani on his Instagram writing, “A light was turned off today. It breaks my heart… gone far too soon”.

He added: “A genius? Yes. But also a daughter, a mother and a wife.”

Stanford University President, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, described her as “a brilliant mathematical theorist and also a humble person who accepted honours only with the hope that it might encourage others to follow her path”.

“Maryam is gone far too soon but her impact will live on for the thousands of women she inspired to pursue math and science,” he said. “Her contributions as both a scholar and a role model are significant and enduring and she will be dearly missed here at Stanford and around the world.”

Mirzakhani was born on May 3, 1977, in Tehran, Iran. She attended Farzanegan School there, part of the National Organisation for Development of Exceptional Talents.

In 1994, Mirzakhani achieved the gold medal level in the International Mathematical Olympiad, the first female Iranian student to do so. In the 1995 International MathOlympiad, she became the first Iranian student to achieve a perfect score and to win two gold medals.

She obtained her BSc in mathematics in 1999 from the Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. She went to the US for graduate work, earning a PhD from Harvard University in 2004, where she worked under the supervision of the Fields Medalist Curtis McMullen. Mirzakhani was a 2004 research fellow at the Clay Mathematics Institute and a professor at Princeton University. In 2008 she became a professor at Stanford University.

Her receipt of the Fields Medal three years ago ended a long wait for women in the mathematics community for the prize, first established in 1936. Mirzakhani was also the first Iranian to receive it.

The citation said she had made “striking and highly original contributions to geometry and dynamical systems” and that her most recent work constituted “a major advance”.

Prof Dame Frances Kirwan, a member of the medal selection committee from the University of Oxford, said at the time: “I hope that this award will inspire lots more girls and young women, in this country and around the world, to believe in their own abilities and aim to be the Fields Medallists of the future.”

Prof Mirzakhani is survived by her husband, Jan Vondrák, a Czech theoretical computer scientist and applied mathematician who is Associate Professor at Stanford University and their daughter, Anahita.

Elham Asaad Buaras

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